It’s obvious to say that straight women are privileged because they have less rigid gender boxes than straight men. LGBTQ+ women and men have their own gender boxes put on them by our straight society and their own communities, but since I only have the experiences of a straight woman I will be exclusively writing about that today as to not misconstrue the queer experience. Specifically, I want to talk about straight women and gender expression. Gender is a performance that each of us acts out every day. Our costumes are made by cheap outlet stores, our lines and expectations are scripted for us by writers, directors and producers we’ve never met, and still we think ‘gender, sexuality and sex’ is natural. Straight women are able to perform gender more loosely than straight men due to the patriarchy letting us. Though it seems liberating at first, I argue men let women act ‘manly’ (be the boss, wear pants) not to empower us, but to tell us our self worth isn't based on our own accomplishments, but by getting their permission. Isn’t it ironic that to be a powerful woman, you have to be a man? There’s very little, if any, space for femininity and empowerment to exist in a single individual.
Things have ‘changed a lot’ since women were regulated to corsets and attics. However, what people don’t talk about is before and even during that time, (being the turn of the 20th century) women actually yielded some power in some societies. After the Black Death in England brewers of ales and beers were predominately women who were earning their own living as (usually privileged women, but some widows and single ladies) brewsters. It wasn’t until commercial brewing became profitable that men wanted in. Even earlier in the 700s in Medieval Japan women yielded political and religious power, it wasn’t until Japan gained a monetary system that women’s status was lowered solely based on gender. Later in the 19th century female ‘spinsters’ in Europe were highly valued for their skill in making cloth. They created their own women spaces called ‘spinning rooms’ in order to escape the patriarchy. However in the United States, after ‘winning’ World War II all of this history was discarded and women had to begin from scratch, again.
When you think of the 1950s, the first image that pops into people’s minds is something of a Norman Rockwell painting; a white heterosexual family eating together at the dinner table, the father in his suit and tie, and mother in her pearls and heels. However, during the 1960s the second wave feminist movement began when women said, ‘hey, we worked during the war why can’t we work now and for equal pay?’ So then, men let us wear pants again, play sports, and be semi independent. We could express gender in many different ways. Straight women can dye their hair, get tattoos, have short hair, wear tuxes and ties and ‘talk like a man’ (all to some extent of course) because men are the ones that women should be aspiring to be. At the same time, women can, and are almost always encouraged to be feminine as a way to push back against the ‘more outspoken women out there.’ I know it’s great to have a variety of ways to express yourself, but I just can’t fully embrace being a ‘strong independent woman’ because it was started by the same oppressive patriarchy that confined us to dresses in the first place. If anything, the most powerful feminism is one that is based on an individual woman’s choice. If a woman wants to stay home, and that’s her choice, let her. If she finds enjoyment out of cleaning and caring for others, that’s an individual act that doesn’t speak for all women, the same for women who like working, but also like baking and being single. It’s all about a woman’s choice; power shouldn’t be based on men letting women do anything.
One example that I can think of that illustrates how straight female gender expression is limiting rather than freeing is at women’s college sports games. The bleachers are usually filled with concerned mothers who ‘don’t know why they have to body slam into each other like that,’ and over aggressive fathers yelling at their daughters to ‘shoot,’ ‘run,’ or ‘get the damn ball already.’ It seems to me that having a ‘girl’ is lightened by the fact that because men allow women to be more ‘free’ with their gender expression, it’s almost as good as having a ‘boy.’ This is the biggest reason why I’m conflicted about straight female gender expression. Rather than blurring the binary it still regulates women to ‘second best.’ Our free gender expression comes from a place of hatred and fear, not a place that wants to lift us up as much as it wants to tear us down.
Another problematic example that came out recently for straight women and gender expression is Ulta’s Beauty slogan, “Joy to the girl.” There’s so much there that is problematic. One, it’s saying that girls wear makeup, not women. I’m sick of people using “girl” as a euphemism for woman, as though saying woman is degrading and scary, but using girl is cute and complimentary. I’m sure children – girls – do wear makeup, but the commercial shows full grown women. Second, it’s saying that only girls can wear makeup, not boys or anyone else who identifies as not a cis female. Anyone can wear makeup, not just “girls.” I know it’s trying to empowering, especially because it was the international month/week of the girl, but seriously, these ads don’t exist in a vacuum. Did no one see the problem with this slogan?
I don’t know how to cure this problem, but I guess being aware of it is the first step. Being who you are as much as possible without outside forces determining your identity is the next.
23 year old English major and ESL Teacher. Currently living in Fortaleza, Brazil. Feminist and kill joy with a cause.